Gobekli Tepe – World’s First Temple?

Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey, about 12km from the city of Sanliurfa. It’s somewhat off the standard tourist track and, frankly, a bit too close to Syria for comfort right now, but it’s such an extraordinary place, it’s worth pondering and perhaps adding to your list of places to visit in a more peaceful future.

When first discovered in 1994 by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, Gobekli Tepe rocked the archaeological world, and continues to do so.

The theory has (had?) been that agriculture set civilization in motion. Previously nomadic, hunter-gatherers settled in permanent communities in order to plant crops and domesticate animals. With the settled, communal lifestyle and reliable food sources came more leisure time and division of labor. Art and organized religion were byproducts of this new situation. Religion inspired monumental building, which required the kind of planning, specialized skill and large labor force only available in cities.

Gobekli Tepe turns that theory on its head. The earliest phases of this temple complex were built before the advent of agriculture and there is no sign of a permanent settlement nearby. All evidence suggests that it was exclusively a religious sanctuary. So, perhaps it was a spiritual impulse, rather than a physical need, that set humans on the path toward civilization.

The hilltop complex consists of several layers from different periods between the 10th and 8th millenniums BCE and is only partially excavated to date. (That’s 7,000 years before the Giza Pyramids!) In the oldest layer, pillars are embedded in walls encircling 2 central pillars. There are 20 such spaces. The pillars are limestone, ranging from 10-20 feet tall and weighing up to 16 tons. They were likely brought from a quarry more than a mile distant. The pillars are capped, like a T, perhaps representing the human form. Some of the pillars have human arms carved into them. Many have relief carvings of animals and painted symbols. They would have been carved with flint tools.

Particularly mysterious is the fact that sometime after 8,000 BCE, the whole sanctuary was purposefully buried. Many tons of ancient garbage – flint debris from tool making, and animal bones – was hauled up the hill and dumped into the temples to cover them completely.


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